At 11, I went to Camp Geronimo, a Boy Scout preserve high up on the Mogollon rim in northern Arizona. As the youngest Scout, it was my honor to light the great bonfire that ushered in the opening ceremony for that summer’s festivities. On the big night, hundreds of the youth and camp leaders filed into an open field and sat in a semi-circle around a stack of wood the size of a Volkswagen. Behind the scenes, one of the Scoutmasters handed me a lit torch. At the appropriate moment, the Great Spirit was called upon to bring fire to the proceedings, and I was directed to light the fire. I approached the dark hulk and thrust the torch into the very center of it. Everyone waited in hushed anticipation for the huge conflagration to begin. Nothing happened. I pulled the torch out, and tried a new location. Still nothing. Now, I was panicking, because I just knew I would be THE FIRST SCOUT IN HISTORY THAT COULDN’T LIGHT THE BIG FIRE! I began flailing around with the torch, poking the pile like I was in a sword fight with a crash-test dummy. The wood, not to mention the snickering crowd, remained unimpressed with my efforts. Embarrassed and flustered, I was feeling a huge need to just disappear, or shit myself, whichever came first. Eventually, one of the elders either took pity on me or maliciously pointed me to the exact location of a methanol-soaked section. I shoved my torch in to my elbow, and up it went, bursting into flames like a Molotov Cocktail, and I can still remember to this day the smell of burning human hair and the heat on my unprotected eyeballs from the fireball that temporarily engulfed me, as well as the uproarious laughter from the entire camp, because what, after all, is more fun to a group of teenagers than human immolation?
Fortunately, even at that young age, I’d already had so many humiliating, yet somehow-ludicrous incidents happen to me, that I wasn’t psychologically scarred for life (that would happen when I discovered women), and eventually I was able to not only start fires on my own without lighter fluid, I was able to burn down entire fences using only matches and dried weeds! To explain, I had constructed a device from a clothespin that was capable of firing wooden matches with fair accuracy up to about 20 feet. I convinced one of the slower kids in the neighborhood what fun it would be if he was a Jap and I was a GI looking to flush him out with a flame thrower (keep in mind, this was before The Age of Video Games). He foolishly tried to hide behind his Mom’s fence,and I began lobbing matches at it. In Arizona, it rains bi-annually whether you need it to or not, so that even the rivers are dry, not to mention my friend’s wooden fence, which burned uncontrollably. Thinking quickly, I bravely retreated to my own home while I watched the blaze engulf the wooden structure, leaving my friend to ask his mother to intervene, Eventually, the authorities were able to subdue the blaze, but not before the fence became a smoking pile of black carbon. I don’t think I ever got an allowance again once my Dad heard about it.
Now, what is the point of this essay? That I am an ass? No, you already knew that. The point is, I have made fire my friend, in the same way that Colonel Kurtz made horror his friend, so that now, as we speak, I am writing this from my folding chair in front of my Home Depot outdoor fireplace at home, which is just like a real fireplace, except it has no mantle or hearth, and some assembly is required. But that doesn’t matter, because like most people, and especially most men, I love fires, and I’m enjoying it so much tonight that it’s even made me forget about the nightmare of buckets and bolts that I had to assemble from scratch when I brought the box home from the store a year ago.
And why do men love fires, you ask? Well, what’s more important than staying warm, cooking your food, and keeping Saber-Tooth Tigers at bay? My normal answer would be toasting the evening’s coming chill over a nice Chardonnay with a tall leggy blonde, and, in truth, I don’t know if a cavemen would disagree with me-I’m pretty sure Cain must have been made in front of a fire. After all, if a bearskin rug spread out on a stone floor in front of the fire on a snowy winter’s eve doesn’t get her in the mood-well, that’s what clubs are for, right? :)) But tonight, I’m alone-and yet, I still feel very comfortable here before it, because there’s no better way to just put your brain in neutral than to relax by the fire on a cold moonlit night under the stars. Somehow, the hypnotic effect is enough to make even an old cynic like me feel that there’s still something real and comforting left in the world. Fires are like old friends that never let you down. You never need to prove anything to them, they don’t question your stupid, yet somehow completely random musings, and they’re always warm. Just make sure you don’t feed them too much alcohol.
Great piece. I think we are less human than our ancestors because we don’t sing songs together, and we don’t tell stories over a fire.
Yeah, there’s something elemental about it that appeals to the base of our brain.